Saturday, June 23 , 2018, 11:48 am | Fog/Mist 67º


Dan McCaslin: Reconnecting with Nature on Post-Fire Hike in Rattlesnake Canyon

Each hike into the frontcountry or backcountry can serve as a daily 'chapter' in your own devotional

Rattlesnake Canyon boasts more than 400 acres of wilderness, and right now the creek flows splendidly after the copious winter rains. Click to view larger
Rattlesnake Canyon boasts more than 400 acres of wilderness, and right now the creek flows splendidly after the copious winter rains. (Dan McCaslin photo)

The attractive prospect of Santa Barbara hiking hit hard after spending most of June in southern Germany, Autobahn driving from Munich to Cologne and back, and managing only a few urban treks in Munich’s fabulous, 900-acre Englischer Garten.

The public park, dating from 1789, is much larger than New York City’s Central Park and is set in the middle of a much smaller Bavarian city. I relished hiking in the informal "English Gardens" with its surging Isar River, the huge trees and even a lake with its busy beavers gnawing down prized trees.

Yet hiking in my favorite Santa Barbara areas means getting outside of town, away from the press of urban pressures, and especially achieving separation from the welling concourse of humanity. However, the fierce Whittier Fire sprang up July 6, and then access over Highway 154 was blocked, and so was my easy entrance into the backcountry where I usually roam.

Since local frontcountry hikes have their own tremendous attraction, I turned again to gorgeous but fragile Rattlesnake Canyon to work my way back from too much wurst und sauerkraut — and too little exercise.

Jesusita, Cold Spring and San Ysidro (and others?) frontcountry trails draw us in, but Rattlesnake Canyon with its 400-plus-acre wilderness wields an incredible fascination, and right now the creek flows splendidly after our copious winter rains.

While the City of Santa Barbara calls it a “wilderness park,” any hiker will readily notice it really isn’t full wilderness with the hard-packed trails, visible hillside houses, telephone wires, and frequent and fragrant piles of dog feces.

Nonetheless, Rattlesnake Canyon Creek’s deep corridor, the pine meadow (planted in 1966 with non-natives), the enchanting vistas of La Cumbre Peak and the “Rocky Ridge” all combine to make the steep trail a great workout and often without many other hikers.

It was truly shocking to find quite a lot of white ashes all across Rattlesnake Canyon Trail several mornings after July 8. Certainly these cinders represented cooled debris from the exploding Whittier Fire that burned more than 20,000 acres just over these coastal mountains and west toward Lake Cachuma.

Clear signage at the entrance to Rattlesnake Trail states no bikes are allowed.
Clear signage at the entrance to Rattlesnake Trail states no bikes are allowed. (Dan McCaslin photo)

It’s even possible some ashes might have come from the even larger Alamo Fire raging out toward Tepusquet Canyon that eventually burned about 29,000 acres.

These wildfires, showing greater frequency as we sink deeper into the Anthropocene Age, can reinforce our determination to enjoy and protect such wonderful natural resources, home to many species other than simply us humans.

The white ashes that floated in overnight into Rattlesnake Canyon from savage infernos actively burning just a few miles away could have wrought some damage, except we were blessed with a strong marine layer most of the critical nights.

What a contrast and head “rush” hiking up the 'Snake at 6 a.m. in heavy fog, but noticing significant ash and cinders on the trail and mixed in the hard chaparral brush lining my path.

While in Germany and pining for nature hiking, I occasionally re-read daily sections in David Kidder’s The Intellectual Devotional and noticed its catchy subtitle: Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam with the Educated Classes.

After being turned off by “the Educated Classes” reference (perhaps facetious?), I wondered why we don’t give ourselves nature devotionals with regular hikes into our hills? These could be focused on humans enjoying "godless mysticism" and access to numinous experiences in the near-wild. It might be that homo sapiens are hard-wired to need these times of oceanic feeling.

Max Weber told us in 1920 that one of the pernicious impacts of the rise of western science — amid many material accomplishments — has been the evident disenchantment of nature afflicting the west.

He wrote about the Entzauberung — un-magicking — of beautiful nature, and a casual hiker noticing all the ashes on Rattlesnake Canyon Trail in a mid-July day would not have found much nature-enchantment that morning.

In my hypothetical nature devotional, one would incrementally increase his or her awareness of natural details that could both enchant and concern the hiker-reader. Confined to local trails for most of July, and with a focus on Rattlesnake Canyon (closest to my Westside domicile), naturally my focus intensified.

In scanning the sadly hard-packed trail, I’ve begun to notice that some mountain bikers have been riding on it.

There is clear signage at the Rattlesnake Trail entrance stating no bikes on the trail, and the City of Santa Barbara website notes that Rattlesnake Canyon Trail “is the only trail in the frontcountry trail system to prohibit the use of bikes.”

Most mountain bikers are respectful of the fact that beautiful Rattlesnake Canyon Trail bans bikes, and that there are generally more children, elderly, dogs and horses on Rattlesnake precisely because of this prohibition.

Years ago, I stupidly yelled at some mountain bikers on Rattlesnake, which led to a most unpleasant verbal argument when I wouldn’t get off the trail until obliging the two cyclists to dismount.

Nowadays, I always have a camera and I will photograph bikers on Rattlesnake if I ever see them and follow them down to their car. I could see deterioration on the trail because of biking while walking it several times in July, most recently on Sunday.

Another strategy to stop the illegal bikers that I cannot condone involves building low bundles of down sticks across Rattlesnake Trail on every long section. If you have to dismount from your bike to dismantle 20 of these on your 1.7-mile joyride down the trail from Tin Shack Meadow to Skofield Park, it takes the fun out of the ride.

Each hike into the frontcountry or backcountry you make, hopefully with children, can serve as another daily “chapter” in your own nature devotional.

As the wise Chumash informant Fernando Librado Kitsepawit reported to anthropologist J.P. Harrington more than 100 years ago, “the old people” always said, “Our mother is one: this Mother Earth … the world itself is God.”


» On Rattlesnake Canyon, see Karen Telleen-Lawton, Canyon Voices — The Nature of Rattlesnake Canyon (2006); David S. Kidder and Noah Oppenheim’s The Intellectual Devotional (2006).

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Dead Horse Pool in Rattlesnake Canyon. Click to view larger
Dead Horse Pool in Rattlesnake Canyon. (Dan McCaslin photo)

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